“Lori Benton gives us seasons in her debut novel Burning Sky. Seasons of planting corn, beans and pumpkins as backdrops to the ripening and challenges of lives working through chaos after a war and a terrible personal tragedy. [She] gives us seasons of the journey through loss, risk, family and love.”

—JANE KIRKPATRICK, award-winning author of One Glorious Ambition

Three Are Even Better

Planting corn, beans, and squash together in scattered hillocks, instead of each plant sown separately in distinct, straight rows… that’s how the Six Nations of the Iroquois and many other Native Americans traditionally grew their primary vegetable and grain crops. And for good reason.
Sown together in this manner, each plant aids the others as they grow. Emerging bean vines latch onto the sturdy stalks of the corn for support, while the broad leaves of the sprawling squash and pumpkins at their bases shade the earth, keeping it moist, cool and relatively weed-free, while the beans add valuable nitrogen back into the soil to help nourish the other two.Some prominent European Americans in the 18th century were quick to realize the benefits of such planting:

“You’ll be planting soon, then?”

[Neil had] expected a simple yes, but Willa cut a length of thread and passed it through the eye of her store-bought needle, and said, “I will plant the corn first, and the squash and pumpkins to shade the ground. When the stalks are tall enough to bear them, I will plant the climbing beans.”

It was the Indian way of planting, three crops in one field. Dr. Franklin had explained its merits during a memorable conversation just after Neil’s admittance into the Philosophical Society…

He felt a small thrill of eagerness, anticipating seeing the method implemented…

—from Burning Sky  Copyright 2013 Lori Benton


Each plant had its role to play in supporting the others, much like the members of a community or family working in harmony. In the story of Burning Sky we meet Willa Obenchain, a woman who has lost her family twice over:

Planting was meant to be a time of joy, a singing time for the women and children of the clans. [Willa] had no children to catch the fish or bang the gourds to keep the birds from stealing the seeds and kernels after sowing. And in summer, when the bean pods came and the corn ripened and the squash vines blossomed, there would be no children to help guard the crop from the deer, raccoon, and rabbit that would steal it.

—from Burning Sky Copyright 2013 Lori Benton

Yet as Willa plants the crops she needs to live, believing herself abandoned—perhaps better off in that solitary, soul-crippling state—another possibility is at work, one that will unfold as gradually as the tender shoots of corn, beans, and squash that spring from the earth, reaching toward the warmth of the sun, the cooling of gentle rain. As her story unfolds those possibilities entwine about Willa’s heart, at times in spite of her resistance, supporting and nourishing her.Though the traditional Iroquois method of growing crops is an accurate component of 18th century frontier life for a woman like Willa Obenchain, it also serves as a metaphor for the journey Willa takes from a solitary “bruised reed” to a woman with the chance to choose again the support and shelter of community, and family.

I’ll confess that it took reading the insightful endorsement from Jane Kirkpatrick, quoted at the start of this post, to make me see that I had subconsciously layered in that vibrant picture of what Willa’s life could be… with the constant application of courage, love, and healing.

It was growing all the while just a stone’s throw from her cabin door. Corn, beans, and squash, reaching up together for the sun.

In that way Willa and I took this journey together.

A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:12 New Living Translation



For a tasty recipe utilizing the traditional Three Sisters, visit my guest post at author Joanne Bischof’s blog, where I shared my original recipe for succotash, using ingredients Willa Obenchain might have grown in her fields.


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